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Ravens ride spoiler role as drive to smash Bengals

November 27, 2005|By JOE KAY

CINCINNATI - With their upgraded offense and renowned defense, the Baltimore Ravens were a popular pick to contend for the AFC North title. It didn't take long to realize they weren't up to it.

Now, they're trying to decide the division title in another way.

By knocking off Pittsburgh last Sunday, the last-place Ravens (3-7) kept the Steelers tied with Cincinnati for first place at 7-3. Next, they have a chance to turn the Bengals' playoff aspirations inside-out with another upset.

The spoiler role seems to suit them much better than front-runner.

"If spoiling comes along with the profile of our team, then we're that," linebacker Bart Scott said. "We just want to get a victory, being the spoiler or whatever. That is just a byproduct. If we can ruin somebody else's season, then that is always a good thing."

A loss today wouldn't necessarily ruin the Bengals' season, but it would represent yet another lost opportunity to take control of the division.

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And, the Bengals know this might be the last one.

They had a chance to build a daunting 2 1/2-game lead over Pittsburgh when they played at Paul Brown Stadium on Oct 23. Instead, the Steelers pushed them around in a 27-13 win that left them essentially tied.

The Bengals had a chance to open a one-game lead last Sunday when the Ravens beat the Steelers 16-13 in overtime. Cincinnati wasted that one, too, by losing to Indianapolis 45-37 later in the day.

Cincinnati needs to beat Baltimore today - the Steelers play the unbeaten Colts on Monday night - to assure itself of no worse than a first-place tie heading into their showdown a week later in Pittsburgh.

The Bengals can't afford to become the Ravens' latest spoils.

"We're playing for something very, very special now," said receiver Chad Johnson, who has a new touchdown celebration planned a week after his sideline proposal to a cheerleader. "We have a great opportunity at hand. These next two weeks are probably the biggest weeks and will set us up for the postseason.

"You win these next two - this week and next week - you basically might as well get your playoff tickets ready, as far as I'm concerned."

They haven't done that since 1990, the last time they had a winning record. If they win their next three, against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, they'll have at least a one-game lead and the tiebreakers over the Steelers.

"This is championship month," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "These next three games will decide the division winner, and we expect to be at the top of that list. We've got our work cut out for us.

"It's a must-win month for us."

They set it up by beating the Ravens three weeks ago in a game that made a statement.

Looking to shake their label of beating the struggling teams but not the physical ones, the Bengals went to Baltimore and manhandled the Ravens' lines during a 21-9 victory that was more convincing than the final margin. They had their bye week, then came out and rolled up 492 yards in that loss to the Colts.

Now, it's those familiar Ravens again, this time with Kyle Boller back at quarterback.

"The good thing is that we played them a couple of weeks ago," defensive tackle Bryan Robinson said. "The bad thing is that we beat them, and they're upset about that. But we know this team."

They know the Ravens feel like they owe them one.

"You knew sooner or later Baltimore was going to wake up," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "Their defense has been great all season. Their offense has been struggling with some injuries, but their defense has been keeping them in games. They probably should have won four or five more games that they've been in. Now if their offense cranks it up, people are going to be in trouble."

Baltimore has scored only 116 points, fewest in the NFL. The Ravens have been held to single digits in four of their 10 games, and have yet to score 20 points in any game. missed seven games with an injured toe, but has started the last two and thrown one touchdown pass with four interceptions.

Even with Boller back, the depleted Ravens could have a tough time keeping up with an offense that's on a roll. Linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed are out, and cornerbacks Samari Rolle, Chris McAlister and Dale Carter are banged up.

They'll find out if that victory over Pittsburgh was an aberration or a turning point.

"It was a great win for us, in the bigger sense of where we're at and how we're going forward," coach Brian Billick said. "Certainly it's big, particularly if that can prove to be a catalyst for us to go forward over the next six games and be the kind of team that we anticipated being."

And that would be a team that has a lot to say about the division title.

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